Unintended Consequences

Plachy’s Corollary to Murphy’s Law (the honor belongs to my brother):  In All Situations, Irony Will Be Maximized.

Sub-categorized under this corollary you will find the Law of Unintended Consequences and its corollary, The Boomerang Effect.

The Law of Unintended Consequences simply says that if you set out to accomplish A, you may succeed in achieving it (probably you won’t), but you will cause B, which you neither intended nor wanted.  An example of that would be if you succeeded in killing all the snakes and then found yourself armpit deep in rats, which the snakes used to eat.

The Boomerang Effect is similar, but its consequences are even more unfortunate from the point of view of the original goal.  Simply put, it says that the long terms effects of an action tend to be the opposite of the short terms effects.  An example is the use of antibiotics to control disease.  In the short term, you improve health by curing people.  In the long term, you end up breeding really nasty resistant diseases that nothing can touch.

Lets start with the Boomerang:  Used to be that our political fates were decided by some group of over-weight, over-age white men in smoke-filled rooms.  These cynical bosses would gather together and with a certain judicial balancing between the special interests (who paid the bills) and the public will (who had the votes) our candidates would be selected and our options limited.

Naturally, such a time-honored and blatantly undemocratic system could not be allowed to endure into our enlightened time.  In a burst of reforming zeal, we replaced the old smoke-filled rooms with the primary system.  By the time the conventions roll around, there are few issues for the back room boys to bargain about.  The electorate has already spoken.

Well, sort of.

For a while the more direct system did work to give the average voter a greater voice.  But not for long.  Pretty soon some people noticed that the number of voters who actually participated in the primaries was pretty small.  Which meant that a small numeric shift could have a disproportionate percentage impact.  Which, in turn, meant that a relatively small group, with passionate feelings, could sway or even control the result.  Soon the single issue voters, fervent and disciplined, came to be the ones the parties depended on to work and to vote.

Give the old smoke-filled room boys their due.  They were canny politicians who understood that they had to appeal to and represent the great middle of the electorate if they wanted to stay in power.  In their cynical way, they made sure the system represented the middle of the bell curve of public opinion pretty well.

The primary is a great example of the Boomerang Effect.  Our attempt to take power away from a small, fairly representative, unelected minority placed it in the hands a small, completely unrepresentative, unelected minority.

For Unintended Consequences, lets look at the impact of technology upon the electoral process.

It wasn’t so long that you could hear prognosticators waxing eloquent about how the all seeing eye of the television camera and the speed of communications were going to usher in a new era of honesty in politics.  No longer, they said, could a cynical politician give one speech to the union members and another to the bankers.  The media, they said, would show the politicians as they really were and usher in a new generation of honest public servants.


If the politicians have become more honest, I have yet to notice it.  Television and the wealth of media attention have labored mightily and produced…the negative campaign.  By raising the cost of campaigns, they have produced the spin doctors and the campaign advisors who show the politicians how it is more necessary to lie today and far easier to get away with it.

For some time now I have been pushing a new measure of honesty for public figures: How accurately they present their opponent’s position?.

Let’s look at one example.  Politician Smith makes a proposal on, say, Welfare.  Politician Jones has some tame study group analyze the proposal under the worst imaginable, virtually impossible set of conditions.  Politician Jones then goes on national television to say that Smith’s  Welfare package would do away with school lunches, put children on the streets, and increase the deficit by 15 billion dollars.

Now, everybody on the inside (which includes the media) knows that the analysis is a simple hatchet job designed merely to provide a thin screen of “documentation” to Jones’ mis-representations.  But, like the emperor’s new cloths, it is enough to guarantee that no TV interviewer or pundit will ever point out that Jones has simply said, on national television, something he knew to be dishonest.

Not to be outdone, Smith will counter with an opposing, equally false version of Jones’ proposal.  And the public, left with two unchallenged descriptions that are poles apart, somehow wrongheadedly finds itself confused about the issues and cynical about politicians.

A syllogism:  Politicians always lie about their opponents’ ideas, goals,  and actions.  Negative campaigning insures that politicians spend virtually all of their time talking about their opponents ideas, goals, and actions.  Ergo, politicians spend virtually all of their time lying to us.

Anybody see anything wrong with that logic?

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